Autonomous vehicles to improve rural mobility through wider access

07 May 2018 4 min. read
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Autonomous vehicles are set to make rural life more mobile, according to a new study from Roland Berger. In conjunction with public transport, or as public transport, the technology could provide rural people with improved access to communities, tourist destinations and family, which is increasingly of essence as the share of the global population over the age of 65 will increase from 8% currently to 17% by 2055.

Autonomous vehicles are touted to improve the safety and efficiency of private transport, and are expected to gain significant momentum in the near future. The technology is energy efficient, reducing the footprint of vehicles, while simultaneously improving space management by using the road more effectively. In addition, it facilitates shared mobility options, which reduces the need for parking spaces and the ‘idle’ time of vehicles.

So far, debates around automation have revolved mostly around cities. Some cities, such as Oslo, have already begun devising plans to automate their public transportation systems. The countryside, on the other hand, has generally garnered less attention. A new report from Roland Berger considers the effect of demographic shifts on rural regions, as well as the impact that autonomous vehicles might have for the mobility of people in these areas.

Age distribution by country and rural population

The global population is set to gray over the coming decades, as mature markets and the post-war population boom result in larger numbers of those above the age of 65. Between now and 2055, the number of people aged above 65 is projected to increase from 8.3% to 17%. The countryside remains a key retirement destination, with many rural areas hosting an above average proportion of 65+ year olds. In Italy, 22% of the total population is above 65, while the rural cohort stands at 25%. Germany and France also have large shares of aged population in the rural areas, at 22% and 21.1%.

Mobility has emerged as a key area of concern in rural areas, particularly as people's driving ability degrades with age. A downside of country life is that, unlike cities, public transport can be unreliable and infrequent. One major reason for this is low subscription rates due to low-density, and relatively high-costs on operators for long-distance services. The situation is further complicated by ‘last-mile’ gaps in coverage.

From negative to positive

In addition, autonomous vehicles could, while upsetting labour markets, also offset cost for operators (usually local governments) that run public transport operations. The technology would offer rural dwellers better and more frequent access to travel options, while increasing the volume of visitors to the regions, thereby boosting revenues and strengthening local economies.

The report adds that improved mobility options also correlate with improved wellbeing and health outcomes for individuals, improving the scope for connecting with others in local communities, accessing better quality shops and medical facilities. 

As per the study, the removal of labour from the equation reduces the cost of autonomous public transport to such low levels that marginally slashed subsidies would also cover costs. Further technological advances in battery technology could see fuel costs fall even further. Finally, by incorporating ‘last mile’ and more open-ended options for regional travel into mobility schemes, the technology could provide optimal solutions.